Have you taken a photograph on your summer holiday? I’d wager ‘yes’ is the response to that question. But have you considered the ‘why’ behind the unconscious habit of going into your pocket and taking a snap of that panorama or sunset?
The poet William Henry Davies asks “What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare”. When there are now so many sensory devices trying to capture our attention, being in the moment becomes all the more precious. Travelling or being in a special setting, should be a time for such presence, but do we always make it so?
This summer has given me typical observations. At Chanonry Point near Inverness, one of the best viewing spots for dolphins in the whole of the UK, a large crowd had gathered at low tide to try and catch a sighting. None were forthcoming on this occasion, but more seemed to try to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures through a glass lens, than the naked eye good mother nature bestowed us. In Zadar last week, my view from a point that faced west towards a spotless sunset was blocked by people stretching over each other trying to take a photo. I’ve never found pointing a camera directly at the sun leads to anything much worthwhile.
Those who go on cruise ships seem particularly prone to photographing everything. A couple of years ago while having a coffee in the bay town of Kotor in Montenegro, I was interrupted by hordes of cruisers barrelling through the old city’s gates who proceeded to snap away. I suppose an appeal of a cruise is the chance to dip your toes into a range of places in a short time frame. Yet, the dipping seemed especially shallow. More a frenzy to capture soething which you aren’t fully noticing, before the horn blows and your carted along to your next destination.
Photos from transport I find uniquely bizarre. One of Britain’s most spectacular train rides is between Inverness and Edinburgh through the Cairngorms. The train tracks and then the road on occasion too, snake around hugging the base of the mountains. Sun streamed in and out through the near empty carriage, as the sun sunk beneath the hills. A Japanese man with professional looking camera was with great exertion leaning back and forth, trying to capture the phenomenon. I wondered how much value he’d get from this given the carriage window glass was clouded and smeared.
Social media clearly exacerbates the phenomenon. Social validation can come through likes on a photo. Still, are the likes worth the cost? I saw on my Facebook timeline last month someone had posted from the stand the moment of England’s spectacular Cricket World Cup victory over New Zealand. Three figures of likes came his way, but was taking multiple photos at the expense of feeling and noticing the occasion?
I pontificate; I am guilty as the rest of you. Earlier this year in Nepal, I climbed up a Himalayan peak. A barrage of photos was taken, a few of which I sent to friends and family. But looking back, it was the euphoria of being there at sunrise at 5,000 metres, with the guide who I couldn’t have made it up without, that I cherish. None of those photos captured that.
On a more practical level what purpose do these photos serve? When the only way you could see photos was through printing them, my mother was diligent with keeping photo albums of mine and my siblings’ upbringing. They’re now something we cherish and sometimes flick through. But now, we rarely exert ourselves into printing photos off and putting them in an album or photo frame. Where before one had to be circumspect with the finite shots on a camera, we liberally take photos, where they gather digital dust along with thousands of others in the immaterial photo albums on our phones.
What is the alternative to photo taking? Perhaps simply paying attention fully to what’s in front of you. Happiness research indicates that a key constitute of happiness is experiences; the impact of experiences endures longer than objects. Maximising an experience requires presence.
Whilst recently camping on Exmoor, I saw from the river where my tent was pitched, wild horses at dusk. They were up on a hill and I made a point of noticing out how they roamed, galloping to and froe in unison, rather than reaching for my iPhone. The nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin advices that we can appreciate nature and its intricacies, via the medium of drawing. Even if we do not feel like it’s our natural talent, by drawing we are obliged to notice the specific, in a way we don’t with a hurried photo.
The panoramas or sunsets that pepper our daily lives we can take for granted, even though the daily norms are crowded with inboxes and commutes. But the impact of such experiences is not uniform; it depends on what you do while in it. So next time you find yourself somewhere special, it might be worth pausing to take it all in — to stop and stare — and notice how you feel, rather than reaching to something in your pocket.